Monday Stories

New Fiction Every Monday

Tag: Sci-fi

Hello. My name is Jala Jones. I don’t know why my parents decided to give me a name that sounds like an Old Earth comic book character, but I’m not changing it now. And anyway, these days most people just call me…

The Queen of Space.

Jala Jones, Queen of Space

Ha! Hey look at that! I just did a text version of a cold open! That’s pretty cool. 

Anyway, I wasn’t always queen of space, you know. And it was a long road from being the only child of two of the galaxy’s wealthiest people to being the queen and ruler of all space. It’s a great story, and nobody ever asks me to tell it, unless I order them to. And that’s no fun. So now I’m going to write it all down. Or, well, dictate it to this cute robot. The robot can write it down.

Anyway, it all started when I turned forty two and my mom announced that it was time I made a name for myself. She and dad had built their company, Larry Antares Shipping, up from just Dad and a single star freighter into the largest interstellar hauler in the galaxy. 

“So your father and I feel that the best thing for you to do now is go out and make a name for yourself,” Mom said when she kicked me out. Well, gave me the keys to an apartment on the next planet over, and my own freighter. Same thing

“A better name than ‘Jala Jones’?” I asked, sarcastically. 

“Now dear, Jala Jones is a name with character and personality.” Dad said. He was going over the company finances, because of course he was he always was. That was his job. For the past hundred years he’d been the Chief Financial Officer of LAS, as well as the co-founder.

“And let’s face it, Jala dear, your degree in Anime Astrophysics, while undoubtedly enlightening and good for your soul, isn’t exactly bringing jobs to your door,” Mom said. 

Doctorate in Anime Astrophysics,” I corrected. 

“Yes, yes, very impressive, Doctor Jones,” Mom said with a little smile. “But we think it’s time you got a real job. So we’re giving you one. As a hauler.”

“Mom, I don’t want to be a hauler. That means I have to haul stuff and…and go to loading moons and….yuck!”

“Your father was a hauler for decades and is a better man for it,” Mom said. And I kinda sunk inside. She was using her super reasonable voice. I hate that voice. So we argued a bit more, but in the end, yeah, I became Jala Jones, Space Hauler.

Chapter 1: Jala Jones, Space Hauler

That’s really fun! I like speaking in titles.

Anyway, let’s jump forward a few days. Here I am, on my hauler, looking at my first “assignment”. I’m supposed to pick up some Megapuppies and take them to Arcturus. Considering my hauler could hold over seven thousand cubic meters of goods, one of the following three things was true, and none of them were good:

Megapuppies were huge, meaning they’d make huge messes and need huge amounts of huge food.
I was carrying a lot of megapuppies, which would make a lot of messes and still need huge amounts of food, or
I was going to lose money on the trip. 

And I didn’t like any of those options. 

“Actually, your cargo bay has bio-stasis capabilties, so you shouldn’t have to worry about taking care of the megapuppies,” said Kibbet. 

Kibbet has just told me that a lot of people don’t know who he is, so I’ll explain. I’d put a picture in, but Kibbet tells me that pictures are really expensive to download over the InterGalactiNet. Like, one picture apparently costs as much as one thousand words, so I’ll just describe him. 

Kibbet was genetically engineered in one of Daddy’s labs to be the perfect pet for a young girl going to college. Imagine a firefox; you know, a red panda. Now imagine it has six legs. And bat wings. And huge, shimmering, green, faceted eyes. And can talk. Now imagine that whole thing can fly and also has an IQ higher than most college graduates. Got it? Okay, now imagine it’s super cute and you’ve got Kibbet. He’s a super sweet darling cutie and I once fired my Minister of Imperial Finance for saying otherwise. Which is how Kibbet got his job as Minister of Imperial Finance. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Let’s go back to me and Kibbet on my freighter, my very first day.

“Ugh, fine, So I don’t need to feed them,” I said. “But are they huge? Am I taking three megapuppies or thousands?”

“They’re about twice as big as me,” Kibbet said, “And we’re only hauling three hundred. But the cost per megapuppy is sufficient that we’ll make a decent profit on this run.”

“Well that doesn’t sound so bad. So what do we do? Just wait for the loading guys to put them in the cargo hold and then fly them to Arcturus?”

“The dockworkers will bring them to the loading dock, but it’s our crew’s job to get them on board.” Kibbet said, looking over the shipping manifest while hovering at eye level. 

“We don’t have a crew.”

“We have you and the robots.” 

“And you, Kibbet. Are the puppies already in bio-whatever?”

“No.”

“But they’re in cages, right?”

“Yeah, but you can’t have the cages,” said the dock worker. (see what I did there? it’s like a smash cut, but in words!) “Them cages belong to the docking moon.”

“Okay, well, we’ll just take the megapuppies and load them into bio-stasis one by one.” I said. It was going to take forever, but what are you gonna do?

“Nah, ain’t got time for that sweetheart,” the dock worker said, and flipped a switch. All three hundred cages popped open. Three hundred megapuppies came bounding out.

Have you ever seen a megapuppy? They’re, like, a special kind of dog that’s bred to be super cute, and to stay super cute forever. They’re basically always puppies, even when they’re old. and they live to be like, seventy. But these were puppy megapuppies, meaning they were all energy and tails and lots of yapping and licking. 

Our friendly dock worker shut the door and left us in there, just us and the puppies in the loading bay. And the puppies decided it was time to claim some territory. I didn’t think I’d ever get that ship clean. 

“Kibbet! What do we do? How do we get them into stasis? Kibbet?” I yelled as the puppies marked the ship and everything they could find and ran and barked and did all the things that Kibbet never did. I grabbed two, one under each arm, and hauled them close to the glowing blue edge of the bio-stasis field, where the robots were waiting. I pushed the two puppies across the edge and they went limp, instantly asleep. The robots, who aren’t bio so don’t go into stasis, hauled them into place and returned waiting for more. 

“Kibbet! Help me!”

“Are you kidding, Jala? They outweigh me two to one! I don’t have the wing strength,” Kibbet said from his perch on the roof of the ship. 

“Well, then, maybe try to herd them into the stasis field!”

“Jala, dogs herd sheep, They aren’t herded by…by me!” Kibbet pointed out.

“Get. Down. Here. NOW.” I pointed out. Kibbet flew down. And the puppies found their new favorite toy ever. 

“They’re going to tear my wings off!” he yelled, but I had a good idea. “Kibbet, fly into the stasis field!”

“I’ll go into stasis!” 

“Sure, but the robots can toss you back out! And the puppies will follow you!”

“You do it!” Kibbet shouted.

“They don’t like me as much!”

It was kinda fun watching Kibbet skim low over the puppies, then head into the stasis field, where a robot would catch him. Most of the time. I told him the robots always caught him. But I didn’t have time to stand there watching. I was trying to gather and herd the megappupies to the edge of the field. Once or twice my hand cross the field, which felt terrible, like having all your nerves go to sleep. I didn’t tell Kibbet that either. I told him it was no big deal.

Two hours later the last megappupy was stored in bio-stasis, and I had launch clearance.  Kibbet was still complaining of a headache from going in and out of stasis that many times. (and hitting the bulkhead once when the robots didn’t catch him) The robots cleaned up the ship, inside and out, and the dock worker said we had to clean the loading by as well. We didn’t. We just opened the door and flew out and figured decompression would do the rest. 


Two days later we were en route to Arcturus. Truth to tell, once we had the puppies on board being a hauler was kinda nice. The ship knows where to go and so Kibbet and I played games and read and slept and watched movies and there were still four days to go before we got there. So we were hanging out in the lounge (oh,yeah, my freighter had a lounge. It’s a really really big freighter) and I asked Kibbet why the megapuppies were so expensive.

“well, they’re the result of literally thousands of years of breeding programs,” he said. 

“Sure, but so are you.”

“I am not! I’m the result of some very specific gene splicing, and I assure you, I’m far more expensive than those balls of drool.”

“Don’t get defensive! I’m not looking for a new pet, Kibbet. I just want to know why people in Arcturus are willing to pay so much for puppies. Don’t they have any puppies of their own there?”

“Well, I gather they’re something of a local delicacy…” Kibbet began.

What? A local what? Something of a what? What kind of delicacy?” I said, covering all my bases. 

“Some…some people think they’re fairly…tasty.” Kibbet could see I wasn’t in the mood. He switched from explainy flying pet to worried fliying pet in an instant. 

“Jala, where are you going? What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Who do you think you are?” He said, covering all of his bases. 

“I’m not flying six days across a quarter of the galactic disc to deliver…puppy Popsicles!”

“It’s your contract! You signed it! The buyers have already paid for them!”

“Well, we’ll give them their money back. Or Mom’s company will. Or something. We’re going to find a planet…”

“Where you can raise three hundred puppies as your very own?”

“No! Where I can set up shop.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m gonna sell those puppies to good homes.”

 Chapter 2: Jala Jones’ Megapuppy Adoption Agency

“Jala, do you have any idea what this is going to cost the company?” Mom was asking me over the comms. 

“How much were you selling those puppies for?” I asked, already en route to another system, far from Arcturus. 

“Immaterial. The breach of contract lawsuit, the extra fuel…”

“Have Daddy send me the total amount I need to make to come out ahead on all of that and I’ll make it.” I said. I was using my super-reasonable voice now. Mom hates it as much as I do. She was about to argue when somebody said something off screen. “What? Yes but…The principle…Jala, hold on.” She muted her microphone and I saw her talking.

Finally she came back. “Jala, your Father says that if you can make one hundred fifty thousand credits you will have come out ahead on this deal.”

“Five thousand per puppy? What were the cooks gonna pay?”

“Three hundred. and you need to make five hundred per puppy,” Mom said, looking slightly pained.

“Okay. I can do that. Okay. Fine. Jala out.”

“Not quite, Jala. You need that money by the end of the local month.”

“I need to sell ten puppies per day for a month. Okay. Fine. NOW, Jala out”

So, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to sell three hundred puppies, but here’s how you do it. First, you find a planet with a lot of families, but also money. Your best bet is a planet that’s been settled for about two hundred years or so, so the locals have gotten down to having an economy and raising kids and stuff. Then you fly over the planet a few times and beam down messages about how megapuppies are the best possible gift for whatever local holiday is coming up. It works better if you know the name of the local holiday. Then you land in a couple of the major cities, thaw out five or ten puppies and let people see them running around like cute crazies. 

In this way I was able to sell two hundred ninety five of the puppies. But somehow, not the last five. I don’t know what law of economics makes it so a  planet of ten million people reaches total megappupy market saturation at two hundred ninety five, but that law seemed immutable. 

I walked into the hold where Kibbet and the robots were playing with the last five. They were bouncing around, jumping and barking and basically being puppies.

“What do we do with these ones, Kibbiet?”

“They’re pretty cute,” He said, flying just out of range and ahead of them. The puppies lined up and jumped to reach him, running in a tight circle that had a bump in it where he was hovering. And that gave me an idea. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Solaritus Six, but if you have you might have heard of Dan Seeburg and his Puppy Pals. turns out a little training goes a long way.

Any way, with a full three days to spare I deposited the full amount in the company bank account and called Mom.

“Mission accomplished, boss.”

“Not bad, Jala. Not bad. But you need to get to Arcturus now.”

“Ugh, why?”

“Because that’s where your next cargo is waiting for you. And no side trips this time. It’s time you started doing this job right.”

And with that, I began my career as a space hauler, for real this time.

Chapter 3: Jala Jones: Actually a Space Hauler for Real This Time.

Sin

This story was originally part of my novel Pacifica which if all goes well will be available in some form or another by early 2017. This entire story line has been removed from that novel, so hey, I guess I can put it up here.

People have used a lot of words to describe Julian Baum. People who see him on the street with a data feed flickering on his mirrored shades would call him a tech rat. Cops call him a street punk. People who work for him call him an optimistic idiot, and people he works for generally call him “number one” or “lieutenant” or “that smarmy guy we hired”.

Oddly, very few people call him the names that are most descriptive, like “philosopher” or “poet”. They see his bright, cunning smile and short-cropped blond hair and they rarely see beyond those.

These days, Julian generally called himself a sinner.

Not that Julian was religious, far from it. But in his travels and studies he had come across the concept of sin and he couldn’t help but apply it to his current behavior.

Every new technology brings three things with it: a great help to humanity in general, a great diversion, and sin. Take television (Julian said to himself to distract himself from where he was going, the place his heart was racing to get to). Television gave us the ability to share audiovisual information across the globe. People could see places they could never afford to go in person, and the whole global community got closer. It also gave us mindless television programs, which ultimately overtook the original noble purpose. And it also brought late-night sleaze that was sinful, in the sense that it subverted the standards of the society that had created it. Ditto the internet. Did the internet change the world for the better? Yes. Was there a lot of mindless fluff on the net? Sure. Was there a lot of sleaze and sin on the net? Yes. It happened every time.

And it had happened again. (Julian thought about what had happened again, and turned a corner into a slightly less well maintained area of town) When the Spine had been invented it came with a neural interface that changed everything. Doubtlessly, it had brought a lot of good with it into the world. People had direct access to their information, interfaces were smaller and rapidly becoming cheaper than ever before, but already the world had shifted and new art forms were being created, as well as new ways to teach, new ways to operate on other people, new ways to build…the world had changed because of the Spine.

And the games were only a little bit behind the invention. There were tons of games for the Spine, tons of ways to disconnect from your immediate surroundings and let yourself explore a new and different world. There were great games, artistic games, but the majority of them were simple basic shooters that hadn’t changed much since the first computers. People still liked to pretend to blow things up without the risk of being hurt in the process.

And the sleaze had followed, as it always does. But even that wasn’t the bottom in this case. Something else had come. Something that wouldn’t have worked in any previous medium. And there was no other word for it than Sin.

It wasn’t any of the temptations of the flesh re-created in digital form. It wasn’t art, it wasn’t poetry or math or anything else so mundane. All those things worked through the senses, but this bypassed sense entirely.

Julian entered the house, the next few moments an unholy ritual. He paid the person standing at the desk, he got a small gray square of metal and a single, spoken number. He entered the door with the number he had been assigned. Inside the room was a…nest, a soft place where he could lay down, all his limbs supported. He sat back, uncovered the access port on his Spine, and attached the square to the access pad. Then he lay back.

The square wasn’t a program; that would have been distributed over the Internet. It wasn’t something that could be replicated in software; though many had tried. inside that small box of metal with its golden contact points was a wafer of graphene with imperfections in it. The graphene was a perfect conduit from every contact to every other contact point, meaning that every sense that flowed across the Spine’s neural contacts was relayed not only to every output, but also to every other input, where it would be reinterpreted and generate a new signal. The Spine would usually shut down the person’s actual motor controls at this point, sensing that such a feedback would send them breaking their arms and legs and head as they flailed like crazy.

But the sensations flowed. Sensations that had no earthly analog. Light color sound music violence love death heat death learning dying living hating exploding running every sense you’d ever had and more were poured into every sensor in your brain, echoed and reverberated over and over into sensations and thoughts and colors and patterns that couldn’t and wouldn’t exist anywhere ever again.

Because of the imperfections in the graphene sheet. As the impulses flowed across the sheet it would heat up, and impurities in the carbon would heat at different rates, making holes in the sheet, changing the flow of signals, repainting or reorchestrating the patterns as they flowed at differing speeds around those holes. The experience would change, would mutate into something brand new, but still similar, still carrying echoes of the previous experience. the longer you left it connected the more imperfections would blow out, until at last the sheet was in tatters and the gold connectors starting to melt. The chip had one logically wired chip that would sense when the sensations were starting to die down. It’s job was to slowly exclude various inputs from the sensations flowing across the graphene. Sight would slowly return, then hearing, then feeling, then smell, then taste. Finally you would be left back in the real world, usually close to where you lay down originally, but not always. You would lie there, spent, heart racing, your mind still swirling with color and feeling and light…and you would pull the small rectangle off of your Spine’s input pad and drop it in the trash. the rectangles were expensive to manufacture, and could only be used once. Every subsystem in the square was burned out by the heat of the graphene destroying itself. Occasionally the chip that was supposed to bring you back to earth malfunctioned and you would just black out when all the connections broke, your Spine forced into a reboot.

But you would throw the chip in the trash and walk outside into the real world and try to cope with the dull predictable colors and feelings and sensations and cause and effect and all the things that made the real world so boring.

Not many people had Enhancements yet, and fewer still would waste the obscene amounts of money this form of entertainment cost. But those that tried it always came back, because it was that good. And the fourth time Julian found himself considering killing a rich-looking person just to pay for another square he realized what it was.

It was Sin. It was the real essential thing. These days nobody outside of Bonneville actually believed in “sin” as a concept. If you weren’t hurting someone else you weren’t doing anything wrong. As long as everyone involved was happy with what was happening you were fine. This was definitely how Portland thought of most things. It was a most tolerant city.

But Sin wouldn’t leave you there. You could try to control it, try to budget for it even, only buying a square when you could afford it. But it wouldn’t let you. You would imagine it every moment of the day, mentally walking back to that place where you experienced it, reattaching that square in your mind’s eye a million times a day, letting the wave roll over you, disconnect you, take you to where everything was amazing. Your heart would race, you would almost feel as if you were really there again.

But only almost. It wasn’t the same thing. And you would look up, realize that at your current budget you were still a month away from being able to afford it, and you would reason that you could do without a few things to afford it right now, because then you would make it a month, no problem.

And that’s when you realized you were addicted. But people have been addicted to things forever, and humanity was pretty good at dealing with addictions. But addictions were bad things, right? Things that would eventually kill you. Things like booze, or…drugs. Julian had always been straight edge, partially because he didn’t like the idea of addiction, partially because “straight edge” sounded cool. But this was so far beyond that. This wasn’t anything that actually harmed your body. It was just feelings, and you can’t get hurt by feelings, right?

Only then you realized you needed those feelings again. You needed to get back to where you felt like that, because this life wasn’t a real thing. Only those feelings were the real thing.

And that was the Sin. You got the bait first, and then you discovered the hook. You got dragged along by it, you would do anything to have it again. You, a person who was definitely a “good” person, would cheat, lie, steal, whatever, just to get to that next little gray square. Every time you would tell yourself it was over, you had finished. Every time you would go back. You would find yourself walking randomly around town, right back to the same house. You would tell yourself every step of the way there that you were going to turn aside, you were going to go do something else, but you never did, you never did.

The nameless thing hadn’t existed for very long, maybe a year. And Julian had only discovered it four months ago. The people who ran the house were careful to keep people from seeing one another there, but Julian had been there often enough to see people, see what they looked like after they had used it. And he was starting to look that way too.

So he would go back to work, work hard, work with his mind clear and fight to keep it clear. But a week, or a few days, or even a few hours later he would find himself mentally walking those roads, back to that place, his heart racing as he imagined getting that little gray rectangle between his fingers, imagining its cool surface, imagining the sheet of experiences that hid within. And soon he would be back there, shaking just a little as he got ready for another three hours of the only thing that actually mattered.

Some Words With a Comet

Beep

“Outgoing pulse to comet 4938-B, expected turnaround time: 4 minutes 29 seconds.”

The man who would spend the rest of his life known as “The World’s Most Influential Grad Student” was less than five minutes away from earning that title. At the moment he was still known as Bradley Green, and his thesis work “What if Comets Are Messengers from Extra-solar Intelligences?” was largely mocked and seen as wasted time on some very expensive radio telescopes. His advisor, who would have a career almost as illustrious as soon-to-be-Doctor Green himself, had encoraged him to stand up for his project and get his results, regardless of what everyone else said. And that’s what Brad was doing right now.

Hissss wwwEEEeeeWWEeeeeeooo pop

“Return pulse from comet 6212-C, results in file.”

Brad had the radio results running through his speakers just to give him time points to record in his notes. The computer was listening as well and could make far more of the random hisses and pops that came back from the comets than Brad could.

Even if Brad’s research wasn’t going to change the world in roughly three minutes, he was still getting some good data. The radio signals he was bouncing off of various celestial bodies was returning information about their relative albedos, velocities, likely trajectories, and some preliminary data about their chemical makeup as well. All of this would be added to the collected body of human intelligence, like snowflakes being added to a glacier. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t flashy, but in time it would change the world.

In this case that time would happen right after Brad looked at his outbound signals, when they should return, and decided to go get a Diet Doctor Pepper.

The telescope he was using was in Hawaii, and Bradley wasn’t. So he was all but alone in the Astrophysics department of his university. He nodded to the cleaning staff, mostly undergrad students, and got his soda, then got back to his desk.

He checked Facebook, liked a couple of pictures of his new nephew that his sister had posted, and then sat and looked at the monitor. His time on the telescope would be over in about two hours, which meant he could go to bed. He stretched.

“Beerop EEEEEEEhweeeeeeeeeeeeshhhewereeoooooo…”

“What the…”

Later Brad would wish he had said something more intelligent. This wasn’t a return pulse, this was a long, long signal. He looked at his outbound times and turned the microphone back on.

“Return…signal from 4938-B, on…ongoing.”

the first Return Signal from 4938-B (known thereafter as “RS1”) was seventeen seconds long, and would be played over and over again for years. Brad looked at his data, looked at what the computer was trying to do with that seventeen second signal and hastily re-wrote the program that was scheduled to bounce a pulse of another comet to hit 4938-B again.

“Readings are…anomalous from 4938-B, retrying signal. Outgoing pulse…now.”

Brad’s phone rang. Someone in Hawaii had noticed the results as well. Someone who would get their name on Brad’s doctoral thesis and would even end up as Mrs. Green a few years later.

Various professors were woken up, and had the signal played to them in its entirety. The second pulse resulted in a second signal, almost identical, but tantalizingly different. After a few fevered hours the astrophysicists realized they were out of their depth and started waking up their friends from other departments as well. These return signals were clearly the work of something or someone intelligent, and frustratingly, whoever it was hadn’t sent their message in UTF-8 encoding.

But whatever 4938-B’s message was, it was remarkably willing to share that message with anyone who wanted to hear it. And it was frighteningly accurate. Any satellite that sent a radio ping to the comet got roughly seventeen seconds of something sent back on an astonishingly tight beam, directed to the sender. Bradley Green sent the message “Um. Welcome to the solar system” to the comet and soon that message was encoded in all the responses sent back. The comet, it seemed, was trying to provide a Rosetta Stone.

Gravity is heartless. Before the sun had risen on Brad’s home, humanity knew exactly how long they had before 4938-B would be back out beyond their reach: Four months. 4938-B was traveling quickly, and would achieve perhielion in two months, slingshot around the sun, and then shoot back out of the solar system, back into the nearly empty Oort Cloud, not to return for almost half a century.

This gave rise to a number of uncomfortable questions. How long had the alien or alien artifact been on that comet? Had it been there the last time this comet passed through humanity’s part of the solar system? History, or at least, the part of history that had occurred fifty years ago, suddenly became very important. Humanity was suddenly very self-conscious about anything their parents might have been saying on radio frequencies, hoping their parents hadn’t embarrassed them in front of their new guest.

Four month’s wasn’t enough. Time tables were changed, satellite launches were cancelled, and satellites that had spent decades in planning and construction were hastily modified. We needed to get something out there, to take a look at this thing. Radio signals were useful, but we are a visual race and we needed to see what it was we were talking to. Probes and telescopes were launched to finally get us some visuals of our new friend.

Slowly the image started to form. The comet itself wasn’t anything special. But there, on the side facing Earth, there was the Visitor. Two domes, one roughly twice the size of the other, made of some highly reflective material. No visible portholes or antennae. It was apparently smooth, or perhaps slightly crenelated. Maybe the surface was moving? It was frustratingly hard to tell from the static images that came back agonizingly slowly from all our eyes in the sky.

4938-B was causing waves beyond the scientific community, of course. The comet never ventured too far from our sun, cosmically speaking. Which meant that whoever put The Visitor on that comet had been basically on our doorstep, looked at us, and had decided not to come see us in person. An embarrassed species looked at our behavior and quietly wondered if maybe, metaphorically, the aliens had heard us arguing and decided not to get into the middle of a domestic dispute. Various groups decried the signals as a fake, a plot started by the capitalists. Or the communists. Or the Illuminati, the NSA or CIA or FBI or SS or MI6 or any other of a number of strings of letters and numbers.

But overall humanity learned to accept the Visitor for what it was: a message from someone else, somewhere else. And the question was: what do we say back?

Bradly Green found himself caught up in this discussion. Grad student though he may be, this was his idea, indeed, this was the stated goal of his project. he had tried to contact aliens hitching a lift on comets and had done so. What next?

He was unprepared for this eventuality, of course. But he rallied beautifully. “How hard would it be,” He asked on international television, “To respond in kind? Can we land a probe on 4938-B? Can we settle our probe next to theirs, and tell them we heard them?” Feverishly the engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists went to work.

“Nope,” they said. The comet was moving too quickly, was too far away, with no launch windows open to any of the currently available rockets to intercept it.

“But,” said the third-largest private space exploration company in the world, “We can launch a probe that will be within two light-minutes of the comet by the time it passes Pluto.” The “2LM” plan caught the public imagination, and the world worked together to make it a reality. The launch vehicle was set up in Texas, probe modules were built in Russia, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and India. The modules were then flown, in some cases by military aircraft, to Texas for final assembly. ad hoc treaties to allow these fighters to cross boundaries were signed quickly and the probe was built. Wheels and sometimes palms were greased to get clearance for an untested rocket to bypass a few safety inspections in order to launch on time.

The first and second largest private space exploration companies quietly pointed out that the probe would continue straight out of the solar system when the comet curved back, and that saying “two light minutes” is a way to make “22.35 million miles” sound “close”. But they were largely ignored in an effort to do something, anything, to greet our visitors and welcome them back.

The day approached. The comet had made its turn around the sun. Humanity waited as earth approached the optimal position for launch. Data centers were temporarily converted to streaming relays to handle nearly every person on earth watching the countdown.

A stormy morning notwithstanding, the vehicle was cleared for takeoff. A world watched as it sped skyward. Amateur and professional telescopes were trained on the craft as it separated from its boosters (which were recovered, but nobody much cared, not this time) and sped still outward. The species heaved a sigh of relief when the probe sent back its first telemetry data, confirmed its course and that all systems were functioning.

And then… well, then there wasn’t much else to do. People kept sending messages to 4938-B as it sped away, for as long as they could still get a message to it. And the world kept trying to decipher the messages that came back, but where do you start when you don’t know the code and don’t know what the message will be when you decode it?

And most people just went back to their lives. But something had changed. The skies were open now, and we were being watched. It was time to make a good impression.

Going to the Desert

“Mars is full again.”

“What?” Gabriel said. There was nobody else in the buggy with him, and it didn’t sound like anyone’s voice over the comms.

“Mars is full. Come to me.”

Gabriel sighed and fixed his eyes on the prize ahead of him. An impossibly huge dust cloud hung in the thin Martian atmosphere. That dust cloud marked untold prosperity for the people of Mars, and the result of almost two decades of work and planning.

Life on Mars has some natural constraints. There’s only so much oxygen, so much nitrogen, etc. Those can be overcome; there’s always more rock, and modern chemists could do things that would amaze the ancient alchemists. The biggest constraint is water. All the polar ice had been captured and carefully stored. Every time someone found new water was a day for celebration. Every drop of water was protected and recycled using increasingly efficient methods, and populations, both human and animal, were carefully monitored.

So when an astronomical outpost spotted a water-ice comet that was falling out of the Oort cloud towards the sun all of Mars coordinated. Such a comet would be little more than a drop in the massive oceans of Earth, but those were still radioactive. And hauling millions of tons of water from one planet to the next prohibitively expensive, even if the Terrans would allow it. This was water that, with a little course correction, would be delivered right to their door.

The plan had worked. The comet had struck Mars more than two thousand kilometers from the nearest settlement. It was probably the first time people had ever celebrated an earthquake. Or a Mars-quake. Once this water was claimed and purified and added to the cisterns Mars would, indeed, fill up a little more.

And now Gabriel was in the lead, a full day ahead of the huge bevy of reclamation vehicles that were racing to carve the comet up and capture its water before it could sublimate off back into space. A few spacecraft were ahead of them, starting on the construction of a magnetic field around the comet. But lifting heavy dome panels was prohibitively expensive compared to just driving them across the intervening land. Gabriel’s job, as ever, was to make sure everyone behind him had a safe path through the desert.

The desert.

That was a dangerous thought, right now.

There are three ways you can stop being an Explorer, Gabriel well knew. As one of the oldest and most successful he’d seen colleagues take all three.

The first was the one everyone expects: you get caught in a storm or a freak rock slide and you’re done. Mars is unforgiving and hard to cope with. If it weren’t there wouldn’t be any need for explorers. The Explorers call this “taking a wrong turn” as in “What happened to Ilena?” “She took a wrong turn a while back at Ilena’s Pass.” “That why they named it that?” “Yep.” And then they’d both get drunk in her memory.

Thanks to the Martian Observation Management Network (Rightly accused of choosing their name so that it could be abbreviated to “MomNet”) it is increasingly difficult to get that lost. Your suit will tell you if you’re getting too far away from your buggy, and if you don’t turn around your buggy will come pick you up, the whole time delivering a lecture on responsibility from someone in MomNet. Storms are tracked, buggies and suits have airbags…it’s still possible to get into a bad spot and die, but it’s much harder.

The second way is to find a place or a person that catches your eye. You set up a tent and head back there frequently, and then you build a small dome when the tent starts looking ragged. Your fellow explorers understand and when they’re nearby they help you out, and eventually you just accept it.

The third way is the one people rarely talk about. When they talk about it all, Explorers call it “Going to the desert”. It doesn’t happen often. But every once in a while an explorer gets an odd look in their eye, and drives out into the desert. When they’ve gone far enough they get out of the buggy, walk away from it, then open their helmet.

Because of the dry near-vacuum of Mars, their bodies are always well preserved, and the doctors can give you a long list of things that don’t cause Explorers to do this. It’s not a bacterial infection, or if it is its a bacteria that leaves no traces. There’s no cerebral swelling, no sign of brain cancer, no abnormalities in diet or blood flow. Physically they’re almost always in perfect shape.

Because of the nature of exploration it’s hard to ask people who “know them best” what might have made this happen. Nobody knows an explorer best, except maybe the other explorers. Nobody can explain why the method of suicide is always the same. The only behavioral connection is that two people who went to the desert had written “Mars is full” in the sand next to their buggy.

And now someone was telling Gabriel that Mars is filling up. To be honest, it was a thought he’d had a number of times. He glanced back over his shoulder at the huge convoy following him. One day. There was one day’s worth of space between him and…them.

Gabriel wouldn’t call himself anti-social. He got along well enough with people. In small groups. If they were people he liked fairly well. He didn’t dislike other people; he just got tongue-tied around large groups. He wasn’t good at telling jokes and saying witty things. If people were willing to listen he was a master storyteller and could hold a group spellbound, his plain voice and unaffected mannerisms complimenting his stories of the world outside of the domes.

The buggy’s lights came on as the sun set. Gabriel stopped the buggy and set up camp. Behind him the convoy did the same. Gabriel had already charted this area, but you can’t smack a comet into a planet without some tectonic changes, and driving at night was dangerous enough as it was.

His comm beeped as he finished getting his tent inflated. “You made good time today, Shepherd 1,” a voice crackled in his ear. His visor flashed “Artist 5”, one of the star craft that was “painting” an electronic net around the comet to keep the water on Mars.

Gabriel kind of hated call signs. His name was Gabriel, the pilot of Artist 5 was one of his oldest friends, Cara.

“Mars is full again…I mean, thanks, Cara. You sent me some great terrain scans, made it easy.”

There was a long silence on the comms. “Gabe, what did you say?”

“I said thank you.”

“Before that.”

“Nothing, nothing.”

Another pause.

“Maybe I should get Artist 7 to cover my zone and fly out to your position. It’s getting kinda lonely up here.” Cara’s voice was overly casual. Gabriel sighed.

“Cara, I appreciate it, but I’m fine. I’ll be at the site in two days, and we can catch up then. I’ll even ride around with you in that death trap you call a shipwhile we wait for the flock to catch up.”

Cara’s voice was thick with concern as she answered. “It’s a date, Gabe. And no…side trips, okay? Just get here.”

Gabriel agreed and signed off. By now the heater and the atmospheric pump had his tent livable, and he unlatched his helmet, letting the pressure equalize, then removed it completely.

“You could do this outside. You have no need of a tent. You are part of Mars, but Mars is filling up.” The voice was coming from all around him, seemingly from the walls of the tent itself.

Gabriel paused, then slowly removed and inspected his vacuum suit, hanging it in the charging bay and then laying down on his bed. The problem with going insane, he thought, is that you’re the last one to know you’re doing it.

Mars is filling up. Behind him were the first wave of builders. They would trap the comet, keep it on Mars, turn the ball of ice into a giant cistern, feeding out water when needed, making sure to keep the rest of it safe until then. Behind the builders were the Pavers. They were even now building a fast, safe road from the nearest enclosure to the impact site. Once the road was complete the Plumbers would start their work, running the pipe that would carry water back to the rest of the Martian settlements. And the impact site itself would become a settlement. A small contingent of people, at first, would come to keep the pumps running and the cistern maintained. They would either bring their families or start families there, and the settlement would last long after the cistern was really needed. Other settlements would sprout out beyond the cistern. And that much more of Mars would be theirs instead of his

“Wait a moment,” Gabriel thought. “Whose side am I on? I’m just as human as they are.”

Somewhat disturbed, Gabriel willed himself to fall asleep.

The next day passed quickly, with Gabriel fully focused on finding the best possible route around craters and other new features created by the comet’s landing. Scorched and twisted boulders had been thrown in every direction. One of the scientists who had planned the whole affair was worried that the friction from the comet’s landing and the subsequent dust storms would start a global firestorm, but model after model showed that Mars’ thin and largely carbon-dioxide-based atmosphere wasn’t likely to burn. And, fortunately, it didn’t.

Gabriel kept his mind on thoughts like this to avoid the other thoughts. The ones that were telling him that he was meant to live free, that he was meant to walk under the orange sky with nothing between himself and his homeworld.

Instead he kept himself busy making up good quips for the many, many times Cara called to check in on him. She must have told a few of the others, because Gabriel’s comm link was active all day. Normally he would have been annoyed by such intrusions. Now he held to them like a lifeline.

Finally night fell and Gabriel set up his tent. After double- and triple-checking that there was a breathable atmosphere inside the tent he opened his suit and went to bed. He forced himself to breath calmly, absolutely resisted the urge to chant “mars is full” with every breath like a mantra, and finally went to sleep.

And he dreamed Mars. In his dream, for the first time, he saw Mars as a mother. Humans had named this planet after a god of war, but the planet had never seen itself that way. Mars was not a harsh, lifeless enemy. He remembered when she had life of her own, though it had never gotten larger than microscopic. He felt her misery at losing what she had, and her inability to maintain her new adopted children.

And he awoke, packed carefully, dream forgotten. He put on his vac suit, put his tent away, and started driving.

At noon Gabriel changed course, heading 45 degrees south. He turned off his comms, ignoring the frantic screams from his friends. He drove at full speed, the buggy whining about engine overheating and about unknown terrain ahead.

Twenty clicks away from where he turned he stopped the buggy and stepped out. The orange sky and the red sand merged, the world a reddish ball, like the inside of an egg as seen by the chick.

“Come to me. Mars is full. i can support you.”

And for a moment he remembered his dream. He realized he had dreamed the entire life of Mars, and that the life of a man is less than a millisecond in that time scale. Tenses, he thought, must be very hard for planets. In the moment when he stood there, his hand on the clasp holding his helmet on, he saw the future as well. It wouldn’t be too many years, less than a thousand, until man could walk free under the skies of mars. To a planet that time and this time were the same. Mars wasn’t trying to kill him, it was trying to welcome him.

Gabriel lowered his hand. He looked up into the sky. The planet he loved, the planet he called home, was calling to him. “Mars…isn’t full yet. But it will be. For now, Mars is open,” he said to the orange sky. Then Gabriel got back into his buggy, turned around and headed toward the captured comet. He turned his comms back on and explained to Cara that he wasn’t going to the desert, not now, not alone. He was bringing life to the desert, and someday perhaps their grandchildren could go to the forest instead.

The Spirit of Mars

There are two major differences between Martians and Earthlings.

The first, of course, is physical. To Earthling eyes, Martians would look tall, thin, and pale. They mostly have deep blue eyes, long, nimble fingers, and white hair, although some other colors show up from time to time. Martians are decidedly social and talkative, quite given to music, and will often play for hours while others nod along in silent, thoughtful enjoyment.

The second difference is one of memories. The Martians remember that their ancestors were Earthlings, while any terrestrial record of the colony ships are lost, along with so much else. The Martians remember when the transmissions from home stopped, when they realized that if they were to survive they were going to have to do so on their own.

And survive they had. They tightened their belts, rearranged their affairs to make sure nothing was lost or wasted, and had a few lucky breaks along the way, but over the centuries they had grown, their holdings and knowledge had expanded, and they were thriving, the healthiest human civilization in the solar system.

And they were still growing. From three domes to ten to one hundred to the first mega-enclosures, human holdings on Mars were ever expanding, and the red planet was turning green inside those enclosures, and the Martians dreamed of a day when mankind could live under an open Martian sky.
But not yet.

For now, Mars still needed people to wander out into the wild, take measurements, check readings, and just basically do all those things that fell under the heading of “exploring”. Gabriel was one of those people. By Martian standards his skin was dark and tan, although mostly around his face since an explorer spends most of their time in a vacuum-capable suit, just in case. He was quiet, deeply introverted, and one of the best at his job. Gabriel could find water where the scans had said there wasn’t any, and could read the face of the terrain like a book. His routes into the wild became the major transit routes after the domes and tents moved into the areas he mapped. He wasn’t always right; but he had one of the best records in the service, and people respected that.

Gabriel was four weeks out from the nearest dome; heading for a feature that held the promise of water, which would lead further exploration—and expansion—out into this area. Viewed from above and over the course of time-lapse photography, you could almost imagine people like Gabriel dragging a trail of civilization behind them, spreading and widening in fractal patterns as they reach for new and better sources of the things that humans needed to survive. Things like space, time and water. Everything else they created for themselves.

Gabriel didn’t think about it. He liked the quiet spaces, the orderly and precise rituals of exploration on a foreign world. He was fond of seeing new and quiet places, felt the thrill of discovering something that nobody else had seen, and even found something joyful in sending back reports of his progress.

The report he was going to send back today, however, left most of his stories in the dust.
Gabriel was driving along at a steady, distance-destroying hundred and fifty clicks, his buggy able to compensate for the terrain automatically. Lasers and scanners probed the sand ahead of him, looked for anomalies, rocks, pits, and anything that might throw the buggy off of its smooth, high speed course, and compensated by lifting slightly, or extending the material of the left wheel, or lowering the front right, or whatever. Gabriel just pointed the way, technology made sure he got there all right.
Usually.

The moment he struck was one he would never remember. It was like waking from a dream, and it took a few seconds to sink in. Clearly he was in free-fall, but he didn’t remember falling. Looking down revealed the reason for that: he was falling sideways; in other words, flying. His buggy was below him, on a similar course. It was tumbling end over end, which explained his current trajectory. He’d been thrown clear when it hit something the tires couldn’t deal with. Lesser men would have wondered at how such an impossible thing had happened, with all the technology that was designed to stop it. Gabriel just made a commitment to find out what had happened and see if he could help stop it from reoccurring. But first things first; he was still traveling the better part of one hundred and fifty kilometers per hour, and his trajectory was decaying. In other words, he was about to hit the ground, and fast.

Fortunately the suit was designed to take this kind of thing into consideration. Without too much worry or trouble he pressed a button on his right shoulder, and one on his left simultaneously. Three beeps sounded in his helmet, and he pressed them again, as confirmation. A moment later a thin bundle of filaments played out sinuously behind him, then burst open into a monstrous parachute, nearly a tenth of an acre in surface area to make the most of the thin martian atmosphere, one molecule thick to fit into a small tight box on his back.

The chute lazily ballooned out, reducing his momentum, and he watched his buggy shoot ahead of him. He was still going to hit hard, but the airbags built elsewhere into his suit should help with that. He hoped briefly that the airbags on the buggy were still in good shape, and remembered with grim satisfaction that he’d inspected them two weeks earlier as part of his routine maintenance. Still, there were things to deal with right now. He curled up into a tight ball as the ground rushed up to meet him.

His suit, equally aware of what was going on, gauged its actions perfectly. The chute was cut free. Milliseconds later small capsules placed here and there around the suit suddenly burst and large balloons deployed to make Gabriel’s fall as painless as possible. He bounced and rolled, jolted and jarred along for a few more meters, and finally tumbled to a stop. The airbags deflated and he looked forward along his line of travel, just in time to see a large yellow ball burst open and hit the ground in a huge spray of red dust. He almost smiled; the buggy’s bags had worked fine. From the looks of it, the buggy was no more than three kilometers away, and had all his supplies on it. Time to get walking.

The buggy was fine… mostly. Whatever had launched it into the air had also taken out the front left wheel and bent the frame beyond what Gabriel could repair out in the field. He could get it to travel, but not quickly enough to make it back to civilization, and not steadily. It was time to make some choices.

First, of course, was to find out what he hit. He should be in range of —he checked the sky—Phobos base, which would have been signaled when he deployed his chute, and again when his airbags deployed, and again when the buggy’s airbags deployed. So they would be curious to know what happened.

“Gabriel here. Phobos base, come in.”

“Phobos here. What happened?”

“I don’t know yet. I hit something.”

“You’re not supposed to do that.”

“I know.”

This was all part of an old contest: the radio operators at the moon bases would say things to try to make Gabriel betray any emotion whatsoever, and Gabriel would avoid doing so.

“How’s your buggy? Pretty bunged up? We know the airbags fired, but were they actually working?”

“Of course. It’s fine, except for the wheel that struck..whatever it was. It won’t drive far, but I think I can get back to the crash site.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m going to be here a while while you try to get a tug down to me, and I want to know what wrecked my buggy.”

“We were hoping you didn’t know how long you’d be down there. It could be a month, you know.”

“You should have a tug that can come down in three weeks.”

“One of these days you’ll be wrong about something and they’ll make you come up here and do my job for a few years. Yeah, three weeks out. Do you need a supply drop?”

“I’ll set up my tent and tell you for sure, but I suspect I’ll need one in about ten days.”

“We’ll get one queued up. A good insertion window is coming up soon. Get set up and let us know.”

“Roger.”

“And Gabriel, try not to hit anything else in that flat, empty, featureless plain out there. I know it’s a challenge, but we think you’re up to it.”

Gabriel just signed off. He nursed the buggy back along his track at a mere sixty clicks. Not only had his front wheel been destroyed, but his sensor array was messed up, and he had to drive on manual pilot the entire way back to the crash site, with the buggy whining and complaining about its missing sensors (the missing wheel it could cope with) the entire way.

Once he arrived back at the site he set up his tent. A martian explorer’s tent is a massive affair, a hermetically sealed geodesic dome with a circumference of ten meters, made of a transparent, insanely tough material that packs down tight and insulates better than anything that thin should be able to. The cabin heater was removed from the buggy and plugged into the tent, and Gabriel’s living quarters were quickly set up as he liked them. After a little thought, he had set his tent about six meters from whatever it was that had messed up his tires. He wanted to study it; indeed he’d have little else to do until the tug was able to come get him, but he didn’t really want to share a tent with it just yet. Instead he spent the night cataloging the things he’d need for an extended stay, sent his report up to Deimos base, and went to sleep.

The next morning Gabriel got was out of the tent early and brushing the dust away from the obstacle that had wrecked his buggy before the sun rise. The night before, as the sun was setting, he thought he saw a glint, something metallic, shining out of the wreckage. It was probably part of the buggy, but he’d lain awake all night thinking about it. As he brushed the dust away his suspicion was confirmed. This wasn’t part of his buggy at all. This…this was something big.

Slow, methodical, focused digging eventually showed him the device in its entirety. He looked at it steadily for a few minutes, pondered, then went back into the tent. He pulled up everything he could find on Martian exploration. A few more minutes of silent thought, then he pulled up his order for the supply drop and added a few things. As he suspected. The call came almost immediately.

“Gabriel, what’s with this order for a 3D printer and a crate of heavy metals? Are you planning on printing a new buggy and driving out of there?”

“I’m planning on repairing some damage. I could send you a part list and you could fabricate them up there, if you like.”

“Nah, you know I’m lazier than that. I’ll send them down, but people are going to ask questions.”

“I’ll answer them soon. I promise.”

“No hints for the guy who’s sticking his neck out for you?”

“You’ll be the first to know, don’t worry about that. Now, I’ve got to get back to work.”

“You know, a lot of guys use a break like this to put their feet up, read a few books, maybe stream a few movies.”

“Yes. I do know. But I’ve got to get back to work.”

The operator on Phobos sighed. “Can’t blame me for trying. Okay, Phobos Base out.”
Gabriel spent a few minutes after breaking the connection reading a few more pages on the Martian version of the Internet. There were only a few million pages on the ‘net, and only a handful had any bearing on what he was wanting to believe he had found out there. But at last he found what he was looking for. If Gabriel had been the sort to laugh and dance around, this would have been the time he would have chosen to do it. Instead, he nearly smiled as he headed back outside to carefully flip his find back onto its wheels.

Gabriel had read once that people on Earth used to make ships in a bottle; tiny, perfect replicas of sailing ships, with the added difficulty of assembling them in a seriously constrained environment. By the time you were done, you understood the ship, and the mastery that would have gone into making one far better than you could in any other way, short of actually building the real thing. It gave you respect for the glory of a past age, the craftsmanship that was needed to do things without modern tools.

His current project felt like that. He was using admittedly modern tools, but in a vacuum suit, and working on something that would have been a relic before the first true Martians were born, and was built using skills and ideologies that had died out before the first colonists had left Earth. Fortunately the majority of the Earth’s governments had uploaded the majority of their documents to the Martian base for safekeeping before the war, and after a few nights of searching Gabriel found what he needed.

Of course, that meant he had to teach himself to read and understand 20th century blueprints and schematics, but he was focused, dedicated, and (due to the effects of a few centuries of enforced Darwinism) at least thirty IQ points smarter than the most intelligent person alive when the device was built.

In the end, he fabricated some tools that would have been used in the original construction, and to his surprise found that his work went faster. From time to time he wondered if any other Martian alive had ever used a screw driver or a wrench, or a soldiering iron. Fortunately the device had suffered surprisingly little damage over the centuries, other than what he had caused a few days prior, and the needed repairs were minimal.

The harder part was figuring out the power system. The crude solar cells that covered the device were understandable enough, and he was pretty sure he could replace the old chemical battery with something that would be…well, considerably better than what was there originally, but it wouldn’t make a very big difference. He convinced himself that as long as the voltages and wattages (both terms had caused a large amount of research) were the same as what the device had expected he’d be on the right course, and he couldn’t be expected to re-create a lithium-ion battery out here, could he? Still, the non-authentic battery worried him.

Phobos and Deimos bases are more than logistical centers. They are even more than just communications stations. They have an array of sensors, reading every possible electromagnetic wavelength and frequency, listening for anything the galaxy may have to say. Which means that a sudden burst of very intense static on a radio signal, radio of all frequencies, was a source of some confusion. The beam was tightly focused and hard to pick up, but even a tight beam scatters and they were good at following things.

A few hours of intense interest, research, frantic calls between the two moons and a few other satellites revealed a couple of interesting facts: first: the transmission was aimed at Earth; and second: the beam originated on Mars.

A few minutes after this second revelation Gabriel got a call on his personal communicator.

“Tell us, my friend, what exactly are you working on down there?” the voice on the speaker was trying to sound nonchalant, but failing.

“What do you mean?”

“Something very close to you is trying to communicate with earth. We haven’t figured out the signal yet, but it’s transmitting a lot of data very quickly, and coming from somewhere close to you. Some of us are wondering if you have finally developed a sense of humor after all.”

“That’s a cruel thing to say, and you know it. Anyway, the signal isn’t mine, and I don’t really know what it contains either. But I do know where it’s coming from, and I have a good idea what it’s trying to communicate.”

“And what is that, pray tell.”

“Well, Spirit here has been out of service for a long time, and has a lot to tell NASA. Say hi, guys. She’s been doing this a lot longer than we have.”

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